Comic Odyssey: The foundation

This post is the second part of our “How to Make Comics” series of the new Comic Odyssey blog. Be sure to check out the first part, “Comics will break your heart.”

Now that you’ve got your story idea and your characters fleshed out, you’ve got to map out the story.

Comic book storylines are typically broken down into arcs. One of the first things that you, the writer, has to decide is the format you want to tell this story arc. These days, most comics are “written for the trades.” That is, story-arcs are often plotted and done in a way that they can easily stand alone as a graphic novel or trade paperback collection. For the independent comic book creator, going straight to trade or graphic novel (OGN) format can prove beneficial. It may vary case-by-case, especially when it comes to cost effectiveness but it’s important to have these long-term goals in mind when sitting down to flesh out your story. We’ll cover budgets and what not more in-depth in a later post.

Once you figure out the way you want to tell your story, it’s sometimes helpful to have a page goal in mind. A typical single issue comic is 20-24 pages, sometimes more. This will help you focus your story in a more limited space. The same goes for graphic novels. You may decide you want to do an 80-page story, or a 176-page story. It’s good to have a general idea before you get going. That doesn’t mean it can’t be more or less as you go, but setting a target will really do wonders for the writing process.

Ultimately, you can tell your story in as many pages as you need, but most offset printers will require increments of 4.

Anyway, back to the outline. A lot of this depends on your personal preference and process. Typically, a traditional outline format will work as you break down the beginning, middle, end, the plot points and scenes you want to cover. Admittedly, that method may tedious for some, and that’s okay. With that in mind, I’ll describe the two ways I outline.

The first is kind of like the traditional method, just a little less formatted. I like bullet points, so I’ll often highlight a major plot point and bullet what happens leading up to, and as a result of it. The format itself varies, but it’s a good way to get the ideas all out on paper and work out the kinks. Somethings may not work, some will. I prefer this method when I’m not getting into specifics and need to flesh out the plot more than anything else. It’s simple, easy and mostly messy.

The second method I use – and one I’ve used numerous times – is breaking down the story page-by-page. This method has been really effective for me. Essentially, I open up a WORD document or get a composition notebook and I go to town. Usually, I’ll write a brief summary – one or two sentences – of what occurs on each page. However, I will also break down every panel (this is where the notebook comes in handy). Just a simple: Page 1 / P1: Action / P2: Action, etc. It’s an effective way of hashing out the plot, placement and giving you a general idea of the early mechanics of a comic book’s format.

These methods – and outlining in general – will give you the structure you need for your story and make scripting much more of a breeze.